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By Suzanne Révy, Associate Editor
Can art transcend and eternalize life? It is a question Clarence H. White (1871-1925) seems to be asking when he posed Letitia Felix in a square necked dress along with a small plaster replica of the Venus de Milo. The model’s twisted pose suggests a dialog with the classic sculpture, but it is his sensitivity to light and his ability to render the mid-tones in his platinum printing that endow this scene with a timeless sense of symmetry between art and craft. Clarence H. White and his World: The Art and Craft of Photography is the first exhibit in a generation to consider White’s contribution to the history of the medium. It presents his work in the context of his colleagues, his contemporaries in other arts, and his students, on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College through June 3rd, 2018.
There is perhaps nothing more exquisite in photography than a platinum and/or palladium print with its soft, creamy highlights, delicate long range of mid-tones and deep dark greys. With a reverence for the hand-made object, Clarence H. White mastered the fine art of platinum and/or palladium printing with images rooted in rural and domestic scenes from his native Newark, Ohio where he was born and worked as a bookkeeper for his father’s wholesale grocery business. He made his first photographs on his honeymoon in 1893 and formed the Newark Camera Club in 1898. By 1899, he was an honorary member of the New York Camera Club where he met Alfred Steiglitz, Gertrude Käsebier and Edward Steichen, among others. In 1902, he became one of the founding members of the Photo-Secession, a group whose mission was to elevate photography from straight representation to something considered a true art form. In 1906, White moved to New York, where he would become an important mentor to a generation of younger photographers through his Clarence H. White School of Photography.
This exhibit brings together early pictures such as The Readers and What Shall I Say? which echo compositions made by painters White studied, such as the 16th century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer or contemporaries William Merritt Chase and James McNeil Whistler. In addition, Japanese woodcut prints influenced photographs like Spring. In it, White presented a single photograph as a triptych, which became his introduction to East Coast audiences at the Philadelphia salon in 1898. It is in three portraits, Lady in Black with Statuette, Girl with Mirror, and Blind Man’s Buff that White demonstrates his mastery of shape, texture and form through light and dark tonalities. His sophisticated style anticipates the harder and cleaner edge of modernism despite White’s adherence to the soft focus of pictorialism adopted by many Photo-Secessionists.
In addition to White’s domestic scenes, the exhibit includes portraits of colleagues such as Stieglitz and a strikingly modern, close-up portrait of Alvin Langdon Coburn casting a sidelong glance, draped in classical style that looks like a contemporary hoodie. Gertrude Käsebier’s portraits of White’s family show a close kinship between the two artists. In addition to making portraits, the two shared an affinity for manipulating their prints with drawing and sketching; the examples included here were commissions White received for book illustrations. He embraced the painter Arthur Wesley Dow’s rejection of the division between the applied and fine arts, and we see that White’s images made for magazines were consistent in execution with his personal photographs.
In 1907, White and Alfred Stieglitz collaborated on a series of nudes which were ostensibly to test lenses and plates and to demonstrate the potential of “straight photography” to yield artistic portraits and figures. We learn the real inspiration was a California beauty queen who had arrived in New York looking for jobs. White and Stieglitz had a somewhat fraught relationship and eventually their friendship crumbled in 1912 over aesthetic differences. The nudes made together were returned to White with the injunction that they never be shown with Stieglitz’s name. White would exhibit one of the images from time to time, but the rest were never made public again. Other nudes in the exhibit include a dramatically lit study of a muscular male back, and a languid female figure looking away from a mirror. Both represent White’s interest in the human form as healthy and natural, which is in keeping with contemporary writers such as Walt Whitman.
In the final room of the show, we are treated to the work of photographers who studied at White’s school, including a pinhole study, The Door, by Bernard Shea Horne, an untitled image by Doris Ullman of the view from her urban home detailing the forms of window awnings and laundry lines, and a particularly eye-catching image by Laura Gilpin called The Prelude. White’s curriculum included both the technical processes of photography and the principles of design and art history, expressing his belief in the medium as an art form. He encouraged students to find an individual photographic vision and it is a testament to his teaching that so many of them made work that looked nothing like White’s. Teaching was a major activity for White in the latter part of his career, and he died suddenly in Mexico while leading a group of women and teenagers on a summer photography tour.
The exhibit, organized by Princeton University, is visually satisfying and rich in historic detail. It will be on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College through June 3, 2018 and will travel to the Portland Museum of Art in Maine from June 30th through September 16th, 2018 and then to the Cleveland Museum of Art from October 21, 2018 through January 21, 2019. For more information, go to: https://www.wellesley.edu/davismuseum/whats-on/current/node/134636
Installation images by Suzanne Révy and Elin Spring, with apologies.